Fuel Cell First
Toyota Hands Over The Keys In California
By Jim Motavalli
IRVINE, CALIFORNIA--“This could be one of those historic moments,” said Jim Press, a Toyota vice president and the company’s top man in the U.S. “Almost like the Wright Brothers taking off from Kitty Hawk.” That might have been stretching it a bit, but the Toyota FCHV (“fuel cell hydrogen vehicle”) on the stage behind him was certainly a groundbreaker--the first market-ready hydrogen fuel cell vehicle to be delivered to a customer.
The lucky recipient was the University of California at Irvine (the Davis campus gets one too). California is the ideal incubator for high-tech vehicles: UC Davis operates the Institute of Transportation Studies and UC Irvine the National Fuel Cell Research Center. The state’s California Fuel Cell Partnership is the world’s premier testing ground right now, and its CALSTART is a quasi-governmental agency helping clean car startups. Meanwhile, high-stakes court battles will determine the fate of California’s zero emissions car mandates. As one Toyota executive remarked, “The center of the American auto industry is moving from Detroit to California.” According to Southern California air regulator Cynthia Verdugo-Peralta, the region will soon have 10 hydrogen refueling stations.
The colleges will be putting the fuel-cell cars, which have a top speed of 96 miles per hour and a range of 185 miles on a tank of hydrogen gas, into daily use. Though they represent millions of dollars in research investment, the SUV-based vehicles will eventually do commuter duty, and that’s an important step in proving that these long-awaited dream cars are ready for prime time.
The Japanese carmakers have said all along that they’d get to the starting line first, and now they have. Honda made its own California announcement the same day, also in the Los Angeles area. Both companies have kept relatively quiet about their fuel-cell operations, rarely showing prototypes or issuing progress reports. Toyota has developed its own fuel cells, as has Honda, but the latter admits its technology is not ready yet. Honda’s first cars will have cells built by Canada’s Ballard Power Systems, the world’s fuel cell leader.
According to Dave Hermance of Toyota’s Technical Center, the FCHV gets the equivalent of 64 miles per gallon because of its inherent high efficiency when compared to an internal-combustion engine. It follows, then, that the car with a 5,000 pounds-per-square-inch (psi) tank holds only the equivalent of three gallons of gas. I asked Hermance if the car couldn’t go a lot further with a larger, higher-pressure tank. Quantum and other companies are looking at 10,000 psi hydrogen tanks. “Unfortunately, hydrogen is not an ideal gas,” Hermance said. “With 10,000 psi you’d get 50 percent more range, not 100 percent more.” Still, Bill Crilly of Stuart Energy, which provided the hydrogen pumps at the California event, told me that the first fuel-cell cars absolutely will have 10,000 psi tanks, and that means a range of 300 miles, the equivalent of cars on the road today.
It’s important that we solve the range thing if fuel-cell cars are to jam tomorrow’s roads. Battery electric vehicles failed because their range of 100 miles or less was simply unacceptable to consumers, who correctly perceived that driving one was like starting out with a near-empty gas tank. I’m not surprised Toyota has gotten the rubber on the road first, because it has learned quite a bit from building 100,000 gas-electric Prius hybrid cars, from which the FCHV borrows the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and an only slightly modified electric inverter.
They didn’t let us drive the FCHV, but we did get to see it scoot around the test track and get refueled. The car was nearly silent, the first fuel-cell car I’ve seen that didn’t suffer from excessive compressor noise. The assembled auto press and ink-stained daily scribes were skeptical--they usually are--but it was plain to me at least that fuel-cell cars are coming soon to a showroom near you. How soon? Does 10 years sound too long to wait? I heard one informed source say five, but since there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the forthcoming hydrogen energy economy, I’ll take the longer view.